· Survivors living among corpses
· FEMA head: Working in “conditions of urban warfare”
· Armed gangs attempting rapes, police warn
· Bodies dragged into corners at convention center
· Sniper fire halts hospital evacuation
That’s the slate of subheadlines that could be found at CNN.com two nights ago. I include them here not because it still seems unreal that the location in question is New Orleans, Louisiana, but because seeing them grouped together like that—from before the first convoy of relief trucks rolled in, causing the resulting gasps of relief to be mistaken for “cheers”—does a good job of showing just how ugly this thing got. That’s important because in an about-face the Bush administration had chosen to answer the accusations of incompetence and insensitivity with a limited modified hangout, rather than the straight-ahead stonewalling it normally prefers. Bush has offered a couple of mea culpas in the last 24 hours, but they’ve been watered-down generalities (e.g., the relief effort was “not acceptable”) that identified neither specific shortcomings nor (most importantly) who was responsible for them. But that’s Bush’s way. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had to issue a clarification for floating the idea of bulldozing instead of rebuilding the city. Not so FEMA head Michael Brown, though, who suggested that those haggard people clinging to life on chunks of shattered Interstate highway wouldn’t have anything to complain about if they’d just gotten their asses out of town when they were told to. Despite being fired from his previous job as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association (what’s the emoticon for throwing one’s hands up in the air?), and despite his supremely fucked-up job on Katrina, Bush gave “Brownie” a very public atta-boy yesterday.
America is a country famously uninterested in history. Oh, we like to watch grainy footage of German artillery corps blasting their way across the Russian steppes, and we like to make grand, meaningless comparisons when they serve our purpose (indeed, one of the duties distracting Bush from Katrina the day after she made landfall was a speech likening the Iraq war to World War II), but when it comes it to actually observing the results of some past occurrence, deriving a lesson from it, and then retaining that thought long enough to base some future decision upon it—well, forget it. More and more we live in a nebulous haze where things just happen. The President makes some bold statements. We invade a foreign country. The President’s statements turn out to be lies. We reelect him. Now a hurricane blows in. People suffer. The President mumbles some shit. Life goes on. The subtly anesthetizing quality of American life can make it hard to remember what it was that pissed us off a year ago (while writing something about the war a couple of days ago, I had to Google “nicholas + beheading” because I couldn’t remember Nicholas Berg’s name), and even within a week’s worth of 24-hour news-cycles, developments that were amazing on Tuesday can seem ho-hum by Friday.
But what’s going on in New Orleans is a genuinely big deal—or should be. That qualification is necessary, of course, since all the wrong things become big deals in America. The Rodney King riots, which should’ve touched off a moratorium on all human activity in the United States until we figured out some way for the people who just happened to be born black and white to coexist without freaking the fuck out over everything, were instead dropped like a hot potato; after all, it was an election year, and after Bush and Clinton each did a quickie goggle-eyed tour of South Central, they got the hell out of there and didn’t mention race again for the rest of the campaign. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, instead of fostering much sincere or thoughtful analysis about gender issues, turned into political football, with both sides’ cheerleaders overlooking the weaknesses of their own arguments and witnesses in their eagerness to pummel the others’. (Far more objectionable than the pubic-hair joke—I mean, come on already—was Thomas’ ludicrously transparent lie that he’d never discussed Roe v. Wade in law school.)
New Orleans is also being talked about in terms of race and property, as well it fucking should be, but it offered something more: It offered a vision of the way of life we’ll have if we don’t stop thinking of Big Government as an obscenity. Ever since Reagan first claimed the Republican nomination in ’80, we’ve been backsliding in a way that’s eventually going to kill us, city by city, if we don’t put the brakes on. I must’ve heard a hundred commentators compare the scenes in New Orleans to a Third World country—the city’s French colonial architecture summons up mental pictures of Haiti, in particular—and